Saturday, 24 February 2018

Developing a sense of proportion about the aid scandal

I didn't expect to be writing another post on the aid controversy quite so soon after the previous one. However, the media furore has continued.

For those of you who have been living on a desert island, the headlines were originally triggered by a couple of sensational and poorly-written articles published in The Times 10 days ago, about the behaviour of Oxfam aid workers in Haiti in 2010,  and a petition against international aid organised by The Daily Express and coincidentally delivered to the Prime Minister by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at the same time.

The story has been picked up by media outlet after media outlet and now involves most major international aid organisations.  A couple of days ago it was Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth who bit their bullets. When working as senior executives at Save the Children (StC) they had apparently sent some ill-judged tweets and emails. Justin Forsyth's messages were apparently about the appropriateness of the outfits female staff wore at work. Clearly a misdemeanour almost on a level with child rape. He has now resigned from his post as deputy executive director at UNICEF, not because of the StC emails but because he felt that to remain would lead to further attacks on international aid. Clearly ill-judged tweets trump the needs of the people of DR Congo, the Yemen and South Sudan, and of the Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps.

Today it was the turn in the spotlight of Plan International which had sacked 10 workers for sexual misconduct over the last two or three years, and the Red Cross who had taken action against 21 who had paid for sex. Like all charities, they have been raking through disciplinary records going back years, in order to feed the frenzy. Well, that will have distracted a few of them from doing their substantive jobs. The newspaper-reading public don't seem to be quite so interested in the conduct of workers in those charities which support British people, or indeed, in removing their financial support.

The irony as far as Oxfam International is concerned, was that the original report on the misdemeanours in Haiti had been reported by their senior officer in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean when they happened. About seven staff were reported as using prostitutes in Haiti, out of 10,000 Oxfam staff at the time. One in 10 British men is said to make use of prostitutes in our own country.  (Clare Short's figures, see below). The incidents were reported in 2011, though not picked up widely by newspapers at the time.

Ironically, most of the last fortnight's media 'revelations' have come from this, Oxfam's own report, published by the BBC. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in todays' The i Newspaper, the hypocrisy of the media has been 'breathtaking' in describing Oxfam's action as a 'cover up'.

'...had Oxfam not reacted so quickly to allegations of bad behaviour by its staff in Haiti, there would have been no report and probably no scandal. Instead, it sent an expert investigation team, identified those responsible for misbehaviour and dismissed them. It did all this in the middle of a cholera epidemic which was to kill 7,500 and which Oxfam was trying to stem. Had it not done so, and had there been no report, it would not be in such trouble now.'

Oxfam took action and immediately implemented new safeguarding procedures, retrained staff and set up a new safeguarding unit. Oxfam's new procedures for dealing with internal sexual abuse were commended by researchers at Tufts University last year for encouraging more complainants to come forward.

One of the first Oxfam employees to be interviewed last week was Helen Evans, until two years ago head of Oxfam's new safeguarding unit, who recounted the increasing number of allegations of sexual abuse gathered by Oxfam's own researchers from three international teams over previous years. The transcript does not report the total number of allegations by the time she left, though she stated that in 2013/2014 there were 39, a number which increased in later years. Oxfam currently has 5,300 paid employees worldwide.  No direct comparisons have been published for comparable organisations or for publicly-funded organisations working within our own country.

Evans' report was discussed by the Trustees. However, she was disappointed that she was not invited to talk to it. When Channel 4 asked what recommendations she had made, she stated that she had requested 'more resources', C4 did not ask a follow-up question about the nature of this resource, however, I would imagine it meant more administrative support for evidence gathering and action, as Evans had already mentioned that her admin support was only part-time.

And she has a very valid point, although - in my personal and relatively uninformed opinion - she hadn't a hope in hell of receiving any significant additional support. ALL charities are under major and increasing pressure to REDUCE administrative costs. Currently Oxfam quotes a figure of 10p in each pound donated being spent on 'support and running costs'. Many of the nasty online comments this week have accused the charity of spending all or most of its money on administration. 'Support and running costs' includes aspects of governance, human resources management and safeguarding for their own staff and also for those people they serve (11.6 million in Oxfam's case).

I myself know from my limited contact with the governance of aid organisations, how strictly the Department for International Development (DfID) monitors every aspect of spending.  Contrary to media reports, Oxfam does NOT receive large amounts of taxpayers' money. It received £31.7million from the UK government, which is about a quarter of a percent of what the government spends on foreign aid each year.

Most of Oxfam's funds come from individual donations from the general public. Many aid organisations are reliant on grants from charitable trusts. Charitable trusts will usually specify that they should spend NONE of the grant they receive on running costs.

All this leaves charities with a dilemma. How on earth are they supposed to run international operations in some of the world's most challenging countries if  'the British public' we keep hearing about in the media, do not believe they should spend money on administrative costs? They just can't 'win'.

What private business, what local council, what national agency or government department could spend as little as 10p in the pound on governance, human resources, training and running costs and do their work effectively?

And do their work effectively if they had to carry it out in Haiti (or DR Congo, or Yemen, or South Sudan, or in the refugee camps of Bangladesh)?

What do we know about Haiti? Slave rebellions, the Duvalier family, the Tontons Macoutes, corruption, gang rule, overthrown governments, military interventions by the USA and devastation by tropical cyclones. And that was before the earthquake in 2010. If you've read The Comedians by Graham Greene, you'll know a bit about the middle part. If you've read the newspapers, you should know about the more recent natural disasters.

So, Haiti was not a stable well-run country before 2010, though it could have been described as a stable poorly-run country. Was it a country in which sexual exploitation was unknown, do you think? Where prostitutes didn't exist? Where child trafficking didn't exist? Where people had decent housing and sanitation and enough to eat?

And then came the earthquake. And then came the aid workers, among them a few sexual predators - unknown, of course, in any British-based public service or private business - and some lonely men living away from their families. Lonely women as well, of course. In stressful circumstance, sexual relationships within the organisations would be more or less inevitable, if unpalatable to the 'British public' who wouldn't dream of having sex themselves without a wedding ring or when away from home. Sexual relationships with members of the local population not allowed, but rules occasionally contravened. An interesting article by Phoebe Greenwood in The Guardian (see below) describes the situation in her own organisation, StC, well.

As Patrick Cockburn also wrote today, 'Prostitution in Haiti is the result of the terrible poverty, not the availability of aid workers as clients.'

And all this happened while living in 'luxurious' villas, as the popular press insists on repeatedly pointing out - in the case of Oxfam in Haiti, large houses on the top of the hills, whose original owners built them there to take advantage of the fresh air and clean water. The poor lived in jerry-built houses and shanty towns on the hillsides and in the valleys.  Now, this description is significant. Remember, it was an earthquake. Hardly any houses were left standing, and certainly not enough to rent. Greenwood ended up living in a tent in the valley, with dogs who had gorged on human remains trying to break in, because StC's existing compound was already full of temporary accommodation.

Oxfam arrived later than the other organisations as its role was to respond to the subsequent cholera outbreak by constructing water and sanitation facilities. It was able to rent the houses on the hill because their wealthy owners had left. However, even if they had not had to rent houses, and had had sufficient solid accommodation of their own, it would still have been better than that of the general population. Development organisations tend to be housed in solid, often colonial, houses, with water and sanitation, security walls and gates and compounds big enough for buildings or marquees to be erected for outdoor meetings (to avoid the costs of air-conditioned halls). Permanent staff rent locally. During humanitarian crises, office compounds can be used for temporary structures.

None of this should have to be said. It is obvious.

In South Sudan, where public order has completely broken down and communities been utterly destroyed, more than half of underage girls are married to older men, often with existing wives, by the time they reach puberty. Young men do not have sufficient cows to buy them. Child abuse of various kinds is endemic. Mothers cannot feed their children. The majority of women in some areas, as in DR Congo, have been raped. Terrible if any aid workers add to this misery, of course, but they do not cause it and have been reported and dismissed for exploiting it.

Sexual exploitation, as I pointed out in my previous post, is not unknown in Britain. Only a couple of days ago, Newcastle Safeguarding Children and Adult Boards published an independent and highly - if briefly - publicised report on a number of cases involving vulnerable people.

Can we just stop here now? Have The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, not to mention Jacob Rees-Mogg, now done enough to persuade us all to remove our funding from these irresponsible aid organisations? These organisations which keep people alive by means of their humanitarian work during disasters, as well as their targeted development work and conflict resolution to make such disasters less likely to happen.

We don't need to listen to our sometimes poisonous popular press. Read the Gates Foundation Report. That will tell you what work has been done, and what improvements have been made. It will also, however, tell you how all that has been achieved can be lost if we give up now.

As Aid organisations, we will take every step to right our wrongs and eradicate abuse within our industry, Open letter from 22 charities published in Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Aid organisations 'truly sorry for sector's failings, BBC News, 22 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Nine charts which show what charities do, BBC News 22 February 2018
Reality check: How much UK charity money goes to Oxfam?, BBC News, 12 February 2018
What Oxfam can learn from charities which survived scandals - and one which didn't, Mark Lancaster University), The Conversation 23 February 2018
Don't cancel your donation to Oxfam - double it, Gib Bulloch, Huffpost blog, 22 February 2018
Stop the sexual assault against humanitarian and aid workers, Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Tufts University, USA, 2017 (it includes a section on Best Practice: Oxfam Global)
BBC Haiti Country Profile - worth scanning the full timeline from its 'discovery' by Columbus in 1492 until the present.
Oxfam loses 7,000 donors since sexual exploitation scandal, Jessica Elgot and Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
Sexualised atmosphere among aid workers in Haiti disturbed me, Phoebe Greenwood, The Guardian, 13 February 2018
The toxic effects of the Oxfam scandal have weakened us all in the aid sector, Kevin Watkins, 13 February 2018
Oxfam boss Mark Goldring: 'Anything we say is being manipulated. We've been savaged.', Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian 16 February 2018
Save the Children apologises to female employees over ex-boss, Nadeem Badshah and agencies, The Guardian, 20 February 2018
The Comedians, by Graham Greene,  Wikipedia entry
Drinking, dancing and death, Duncan Campbell, The Guardian 17 December 2005
Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's adventures in Haiti and Central America 1950-1983, by Bernard Diederich, 2012
BBC DR Congo Country profile
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wikipedia entry
BBC South Sudan Country Profile
Children 'forced to watch rape' in South Sudan, BBC News, 22 February 2018
How the international community has failed South Sudan, The Economist, 16 February 2018
Red Cross staff reveals 21 staff paid for sexual services, BBC News, 24 February 2018
Oxfam scandal: Helen Evans Channel 4 interview, full transcript published in The Spectator blog, 13 February 2018
Clare Short attacks 'hysterical coverage of Oxfam scandal' and claims 'entire aid sector smeared', Paul Waugh, Huffpost, 23 February 2018
Unicef deputy quits after inappropriate behaviour claims, Patrick Greenwood, The Guardian, 22 February 2018
Final Joint Sector Case Review concerning sexual exploitation of children and adults with needs for care and support, by David Spicer for Newcastle Safeguarding Children Board and Newcastle Safeguarding Adult Board, February 2018
Nobody is safe in an era of puffed-up scandals, Patrick Cockburn, The i Newspaper, previously published in The Independent as The overreaction to Oxfam's failings is part of a deeper and more damaging malaise, 23 February 2018
New Foundation Report highlights remarkable progress against global poverty and disease, warns future progress in jeopardy, Press Release, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 13 September 2017

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

I'm still supporting Oxfam

The excitable elements of the Press must be rubbing their hands in glee. This is the news story the more sensationalist of them have been longing for, as have our usual demagogues. On Thursday, The Times produced a critical report on the conduct of some Oxfam workers. It took all of twenty four hours for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be knocking at the door of Number 10 demanding that Britain's aid budget should be stopped. Shome coincidence, shurely.....

The trigger for this frenzy was, of course, the shocking news about sexual misconduct among some of Oxfam's aid workers during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and in Chad in 2006. Here were well-paid staff working for one of our most respected charities making use of the services of local prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage, though we don't know that, and all of whom probably lived in desperate circumstances. Some women may have sold sex in order to put food in their children's stomachs. That practice is common across the developing world - and elsewhere - and is inevitably going to increase during a disaster. Wrong that the vulnerable should be taken advantage of, though, dare I say it, the women no doubt appreciated the money.

Those aid workers who were guilty were of course dealt with at the time, within the limits of current procedures. In fact, the whistleblower, Paul Caney, was a high-level official in Oxfam's own Caribbean and Latin American team. He had gone right to the top of Oxfam with his report. Safeguarding procedures have since been revised and tightened up. An old story, therefore, but for some strange reason suddenly resurrected to coincide with Rees-Mogg's bid for power. It is the foreign counterpart of right wing campaigns against homegrown 'benefit cheats'.

Since the story broke a couple of days ago, other international aid organisations have indicated that some of their staff too may have engaged in similar behaviour. Worse, the director at the centre of the Oxfam case, 'let go' without a reference, has since gone on to work for other organisations, including currently, CAFOD. Others implicated may have done the same. Clearly, references are not always checked and some charities had weak management procedures. Charities employ internal disciplinary methods, as they did in this case. The effectiveness and appropriateness of such methods should, of course, be questioned and revised if necessary.

Sad to say, none of these stories comes as an enormous surprise - except, of course, to the pontificating popular press. Sexualised behaviour is prevalent in many of our own European and American workplaces, as recent well-publicised cases have demonstrated. It would be surprising if the aid world were completely immune from similar behaviour. It is common among other expatriates like oil workers, after all. People living in foreign countries and away from their families, particularly those working in challenging cultures and environments do tend to develop wilder social lives than they would be likely to have in the humdrum context of Great Britain. Not good, but not surprising either.

Inevitably, the allegations against Oxfam have broadened in focus as bandwagons have been jumped on. What started off as a justifiable concern about weak safeguarding procedures and the use, seven years ago, of prostitutes from within a vulnerable community led to separate allegations of a male-dominated management culture. Then came reports that volunteer assistants in British Oxfam shops had been propositioned, events dating back four years and dealt with at the time. I wonder if they are the only workers in Britain's retail sector to experience such behaviour?

None of this conduct is, of course, unfamiliar to us, or specific only to the aid sector, as recent events in the entertainment industry, in the political world and in some of our best-known financial institutions have shown. A number of the better quality newspapers are now raising questions about why reports of these really quite old events are resurfacing just now. Are we completely sure it has nothing to do with politicians' leadership ambitions, supported by the rightwing press? It is easy to whip up the anti-liberal brigade in Brexit Britain. Lucky Rees-Mogg, not only does he get a resurrected story like this playing straight into his hands, but also the newly announced support of Aaron Banks, the UKIP campaigner, transferring to him the financial resources once devoted to Nigel Farage. Rees-Mogg is well set to continue to play the moral crusader, confident in the allegiance of his self-righteous supporters on social media, who have never undergone any foreign experience more challenging than a two-week package holiday in Benidorm.

However, let's think about what we are saying here.

People who work for big aid organisations are paid professional workers, like those in all industries, and so they should be. No one wants millions of pounds of charitable donations and government money to be disbursed by unaccountable amateurs without the necessary management skills. Senior aid workers have to control large budgets and manage a diverse range of people. The days when 'good works' were principally carried out by missionaries and volunteers are long gone. These days, senior staff are similar in background and skills to those working for other public agencies, the oil industry or big infrastructure and engineering projects. As senior managers, they bring with them highly developed skills and relevant experience. They are expected to work to high professional standards and be accountable. Many of them have gone on to play significant roles in our public life.

That a few senior aid workers in a small number of foreign settings fail to live up to these standards in their private lives is disappointing but hardly surprising. Their failings makes them little different from their counterparts in private and public organisations elsewhere. A few may be bullies, or use sexualised language or overly-physical gestures. Some may make use of prostitutes, including, possibly, the underaged. No one, however, is suggesting that such attitudes and behaviour are typical of all aid workers in our charities. Nor is anyone suggesting that where workers have demonstrated this behaviour in private, it has had a major impact on their working lives and the service they provide for the poorest. To do so, if unfounded, would be quite unjust.

Nevertheless, you may argue, there is a difference between charities and businesses. Aid organisations are supposed to support the most vulnerable, not prey on them. They are dependent on public funds and private donations. The aid workers paying for prostitutes were doing so with salaries provided by other people's money, as is true of public sector and not-for-profit workers everywhere. It seems as if the monitoring structures within Oxfam may not have been effective. In that case, let them be answerable for this and go through whatever reviews and restructuring are necessary, but let us not start arguing that in that case we should withdraw our aid from vulnerable communities across the world.

Sexual exploitation is all around you in the developing world. Stuart and I remember the middle-aged men bringing young women into our hotel in northern Cameroon. They did not look like young girls, but who could really tell? Were the men aid workers or expatriate engineers? Who knows?

In Kampala, we stopped eating at our favourite restaurant when by 7 o'clock in the evening the prostitutes started trooping in. Even in quiet Lilongwe, I can immediately spot the 'working girls' in my local restaurant. How do I know? The dizzy high heels, the short tight dresses so different from the modest outfits worn by ordinary Malawian women, for whom even knee-length skirts are considered 'short'. These young women sit at the bar, waiting for men to approach them. Most of the men patronising them are white and foreign. Lonely businessmen or charity workers? Who knows?

In what ways is prostitution of this kind different from its counterpart in Scotland? After all, there are 'working girls' in Leith, just down the road from us. Men using the services of prostitutes are rarely if ever prosecuted in Britain, not just Haiti.

For one thing, prostitution in Edinburgh is carried out in relatively unfrequented areas or off the street in a sauna. Girls come out later in the evening and are not obvious in the kinds of restaurants we would go to. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, we also know that women are trafficked into the sex trade in Scotland, just as they are in the developing world. Some may have their own personal or social pressures, be trying to support a drug or alcohol habit or just trying to help their families to survive. Few prostitutes either here or abroad make completely free choices, except possibly those working in high-end escort agencies.

Even worse than the accounts of prostitution are those of child abuse. When we were staying in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka, we would regularly see a middle-aged white man in a rickshaw, with a gaggle of children hanging off it. He worked for an NGO, I've no idea which one. Nobody seemed to be addressing the potential or real risks those children faced. They might well have been pimped by their parents. Who knows? However, this is not just the situation abroad. In our own country, the Rotherham cases have demonstrated how authorities can be blinded by cultural prejudices. Many people have been tardy in recognising abuse happening in residential settings here. Why are we, in the country which nurtured and indeed lauded, Jimmy Saville, suddenly expecting safeguarding to be better in disaster-ridden countries abroad,with poorly functioning governments and inadequate communications? How self-righteous we all are!

While current news stories relate to a small number of expatriate aid workers, the conduct of local staff is much more likely to fall below the standards expected. Recent reports from refugee camps in northern Uganda tell of 'ghost' recipients of aid, embezzlement, bribery and trafficking of women and girls. Uganda's support for refugees used to seem impressive. I think it probably still is impressive, but not quite as impressive as we previously thought.

UN Peacekeepers have long been implicated in sexual violence in countries such as DR Congo. The reported incidents are almost certainly a small proportion of the total. Many such peacekeepers come from countries with male-dominated cultures, in which men may consider that they have a 'right' to sex. Such attitudes may influence their behaviour in the countries to which they are assigned.

We would be wrong to assume, however, that the examples given here are typical of all relationships between aid workers and the local population. Many develop normal personal relationships within and beyond their teams, as they might in their own countries, or as do workers in other industries. The majority of such relationships are mutually respectful; indeed, many such couples develop long-term partnerships. Bullying and exploitation are the exception, not the rule.

As you can see, I am well aware of the weaknesses in some of our attempts to deal with some very intractable issues in the developing world. However, they are weaknesses which are typical also of our own society, not just of foreign aid workers. The sloppy journalism which has characterised writing about this topic has been quite shocking in its sensationalism, lack of balance and emotiveness. Some of the anecdotes being shared on Twitter and elsewhere are simply that. Linda Polman's article in The Times following the one by Sean O'Neill's which started all the hysteria, is extremely one-sided, personalised and devoid of concrete verifiable evidence. The anecdotes and stories it recounts in some cases date back twenty or thirty years. O'Neill's article is straightforward tabloid journalism. It appeared 'out of the blue' seven years after the incidents it describes, apparently deliberately timed to coincide with power struggles taking place within the toxic culture of the Tory party.

This is a witch hunt. If aid is cut off, as most of these writers are suggesting, the weakest of our fellow human beings will be the inevitable and main casualties. Fortunately, even in the Tory party, voices of reason are beginning to prevail. Andrew Mitchell has spoken effectively on the BBC and written a good article for the Evening Standard and the 'i', as has William Hague, both of whom know rather more about international aid and foreign countries than Jacob Rees Mogg. Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary for International Development, is refusing to be pushed into decisions by her more extreme colleagues.

This is not to say however, that we should not take such abuse seriously and deal with it when it occurs. When such abuse occurs, however, what is behind it?

Firstly, there is the issue of power and how it is distributed. This is often accompanied by a belief in male 'entitlement', just as in Hollywood. Westerners may be treated with too much deference. Partly this is because they manage the resources. Partly, these attitudes go back decades, to colonial times, when the word of the local district officer or, sometimes worse, the memsahib, often went unchallenged. It is difficult for people to say 'no', particularly if they fear they may lose access to food or support for their family.

Secondly, humanitarian workers experience highly pressurised lives, particularly during disasters. They see a lot of death and suffering in appalling circumstances. The problems they deal with may seem insoluble. Some of them may even, reluctantly, have power over life or death, particularly if they have to ration scarce resources. Sometimes workers may have to select those children who will benefit from supplementary feeding while turning away those whose fate is already sealed. In so doing they may have to ignore the pleas of desperate parents. Such workers almost certainly benefit from more generous food allocations than the people they serve, for otherwise they would be unable to do their jobs. Inevitably there may be 'guilt' attached to this. Yet, most such aid workers do not benefit from having the support of their families around them, or partners with whom they can share the pressures. The impact of such stress on them as individuals can be overwhelming.

It is hardly surprising that some of these workers may play hard when off duty to compensate for living hard during the long hours they work, day after day. These pressures may result in wild drunken parties or intense relationships within expatriate teams, some of which may also verge on the exploitative. At some point a line may be crossed, as clearly happened in Haiti, Chad and, no doubt, other countries, though it is surprising that not much has been said about this. (For more on crossing the line, though within a different context, read Emma's Story: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan, by Deborah Scroggins) The stories so far have been about a small number of dysfunctional men in a small number of countries. Unacceptable but hardly representative of the whole of the aid industry or even of Oxfam's work in the 90 countries in which it operates.

Many critical voices this week have pointed to the 'luxurious' circumstances in which aid workers live. Again, these comments show a complete lack of understanding about the context. Yes, such workers will often lodge in 'big' houses. I can only speak of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where I have lived. There it is difficult to find mid-range housing except in the urban centres. Aid work is mostly carried out in remote rural areas and small towns. In settlements twenty miles or further beyond the capital, the choice may be between mud, pole and grass-thatched huts, or if you are lucky, two-roomed baked-earth cottages with beaten earth floors, and large old ex-colonial houses. Most sanitation will be provided by pit latrines. In Uganda, even the hotels in which Stuart and I delivered training only offered delegates the use of pit latrines.

Aid workers must be housed in sanitary conditions. That much surely is obvious. In Uganda, only 10% of households had flush toilets and then mostly in cities. Ony 8% had electricity. Piped water within houses was a rarity. Aid workers need access to clean water and proper sanitation or they get sick and are of no use to anyone. They need electricity, usually provided by a generator, because access to the internet is vital to modern ways of working. It also makes life safer. They need a secure environment with proper walls and fences and guards, because robbery is very common. This kind of environment is not 'luxurious'. It is essential for them to do their work. Have any of the critics ever lived abroad?

Is it fair that the past activities reported this week should lead to calls for aid to be cut or for aid organisations to be disbanded altogether as some politicians and media sources in Brexit Britain seem to be demanding?

For urgent humanitarian aid, there is no alternative to providing direct support on the ground. Such support is virtually impossible to mobilise from within countries in which law and order have broken down, health systems have succumbed to epidemics or transport systems have collapsed following earthquakes or floods. You need very highly trained specialist staff to deal with such situations, able to operate under extreme pressure. They are unlikely to be without some flaws. As far as I know, sainthood is not one of the qualifications required. Living and working abroad all one's life in these kinds of circumstances can lead to a loss of one's bearings and, in a very few cases, a hardening of emotional reactions or even a destruction of one's moral compass. The stories in the press which recount instances such as these are mostly anecdotal, however. They are not the outcomes of objective research studies.

Effective humanitarian action needs resources, and those resources need to be managed effectively. Governance in developing countries, particularly those in the middle of disasters, can be seriously lacking. Sometimes the necessary technical skills are only available from specialist organisations. And abuse of resources and of people is just as likely - in fact, even more likely - to be carried out by local staff under pressure from their extended families as by expatriates.

For those of us who work for smaller charities, the demeanour of staff in the bigger agencies can be irritating - their sense of entitlement, their sometimes superior attitudes, their domination of the working context. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and their like are responsible for amazing achievements. They transform lives across the world. We should be proud of their successes, while supporting them as they deal with their weaknesses. Can I ask if you, my readers, work for perfect organisations? When you identify weaknesses in your businesses, do you demand that they should be closed down?

The current media frenzy plays into the hands of those who have always wished aid work ill. Right wing politicians such as Priti Patel and the tabloid press have made no secret of their scepticism about the worth of international aid. The issue no longer seems to be about improving the governance of our charities. There is a real danger that the current hysteria will put an end to aid in its entirety. If it does, then millions of the poor and weak will suffer in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Oxfam's work with the Burmese Rohingya, in DR Congo and in the Yemen, for example, will end.

So, what would Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Daily Mail et al like us to do about aid? Stop giving it, of course. In the case of Oxfam alone, let me remind you, that means we should no longer:
  • help communities across Africa and Asia deal with climate change
  • campaign to improve global trade rules so that they are fairer for poorer coutries
  • help smallholders grow and market their crops
  • develop water resources in drought-ridden agricultural areas of Ethiopia and northern Kenya
  • provide access to clean water and sanitation in South Sudan, Pakistan, northern Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe
  • train people to fight gender-related violence in Zambia
  • provide sexual health information in the Philippines and elsewhere
  • help female survivors of gender violence in Iraq rebuild their lives
  • address severe malnutrition in DR Congo
  • provide free health care to mothers and children under five in Sierra Leone
  • provide low cost clinics in rural Georgia
  • improve education in Zambia, building community schools for orphans without the resources to attend government schools
  • help women and young people start up businesses in the slums of Nairobi and other urban centres
  • provide non-polluting bio-sanitation centres in slums so that people can shower and use safe latrines
  • train midwives and birth attendants in sub-Saharan Africa
  • etc etc etc etc
If our sensationalist press got its way all this work by this one charity alone would stop.

And what if DfID withdrew from all the work carried out by all its funded charities? The impact would be enormous. In Malawi alone, the following projects would end:
  • support to groups working to prevent violence against women and children and to develop traditional and formal justice systems
  • support for sustainable infrastructure developments
  • provision of capital and technical assistance to small and medium agricultural businesses so that they develop resilience to climate change
  • action to prevent school drop out and keep marginalised girls in secondary schools
  • provision of health services to poor communities, which to date has treated 4.3 million under-fives for pneumonia, 63,000 patients for TB, enabled 2.3 million deliveries by skilled health workers, extended family planning to 363,000 users, treated 416,000 adults for HIV, immunised 2.4 million children, treated 25 million children for malaria, and distributed 10 million bednets
  • improvements to ethical and professional standards within the civil service, introducing merit-based recruitment and performance-based human resource management
  • help to survivors of violence against women to enable them to achieve justice
  • improvements to public finance and budgeting
  • work to develop disaster-resilient communities.
Odd isn't it that no one suggests that the Catholic Church should be closed down because of the behaviour of some of its priests, or that football clubs should be disbanded because of the predatory behaviour of some of their coaches. Aid organisations, however, are fair game.

Let's punish the poorest people in the world for the behaviour of a few maverick senior managers. That'll teach 'em!

Sources for this article

Don't cut foreign aid because of  the disturbing behaviour of individual workers at Oxfam, i Academics (Luisa Enria, University of Bath, The 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
British aid makes the world a better place - we should be proud, Andrew Mitchell, The Evening Standard, 13 February 2018
Don't let right wing Brexiters exploit the Oxfam scandal, Marianne Taylor, The Herald, 12 February 2018
What is Oxfam's real crime?, Richard Murphy, Tax Research UK, 10 February 2018
Charities watchdog demands answers from Oxfam over Haiti scandal, Jamie Grierson, The Guardian, 10 February 2018
Oxfam's Haiti scandal may have big consequences for Britain's foreign aid target, Stephen Bush, The New Statesman, 12 February 2018
Oxfam in Haiti: It was like a Caligula orgy with prostitutes in Oxfam T-shirts, Sean O'Neill, The Times, 9 February 2018
The Oxfam row is no reason to cut foreign aid, Matthew Ancona, The Guardian, 11 February 2018
Aid worker who used prostitutes: 'Judge me by my actions not by what I do in my time off', LBC, 11 February 2018
Refugee Funds Scam: There is no place for fraud UN tells Uganda, All Africa, 13 February 2018
Oxfam scandal - Would you still donate?, Huffpost UK Politics video
Oxfam scandal: William Hague warns cuts to aid would be a 'strategic blunder', Richard Vaughan, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
The Oxfam scandal is a reckoning for the boated, decadent aid industry I saw at first hand, Richard Dowden, the 'i' Newspaper, 13 February 2018
We need to increase the foreign aid budget following the Oxfam Haiti scandal, Matthew Norman, The Independent, 11 February 2018

You may also find the following posts interesting:

Making aid work

Charity, aid and blackmail 

Friday, 9 February 2018

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

A couple of weeks ago I was idly flicking through my copy of the 'i' newspaper over breakfast, when my attention was caught by a short article written by a freelancer. I can't remember her name and I didn't keep the article, but this is the gist of it. The writer had just discovered how 'empowering' and 'liberating' it was to shave all her hair off. Silly trivial stuff. The 'i' clearly had an awkward little space at the bottom of a page and had tried to fill it from the discard pile.

Attention seekers - models, pop singers - often shave off their hair in order to reap the 'shock horror' tabloid headlines which will add two minutes' more recognition to their public profile. I did wonder, however, what it felt like to be a long-term sufferer of alopecia reading that article over a morning bowl of Rice Krispies. Even I, a short-term sufferer, felt rather queasy and, indeed, quite irritated by a spoilt little twenty five-year-old making self-regarding and superficial sweeping statements about an issue which for many people is quite upsetting. Despite being a robust and sanguine cancer-sufferer, I had found it quite unpleasant day after day, after the most recent bouts of chemotherapy, to keep clearing the plughole or sweeping the floor to remove thick clumps of hair.

My decision to have a hairdresser shave off the rest of my hair arose from such irritation and disgust. Despite the supportive presence of my daughter-in-law, I did not find the shaving experience 'empowering' or 'liberating'. Both at the time and since, I have found it difficult to look at myself in the mirror, especially when I have forgotten that I am hairless and just catch sight of that strange smooth sphere, with two ears sticking out like handles. I have never considered my ears to be particularly unsightly, but I do now.

Since then, I have made sure that my head is virtually never uncovered. I have a range of caps of one design or another. I even wear one at night, for being hairless means being cold. A few years ago I did have a friend who on losing her hair during chemotherapy, refused point blank to wear a cap, let alone a wig. She did not want to 'hide' behind her hair covering. People, she felt, should accept her for what she was. Brave for more than one reason - the north east of Scotland isn't that warm even in the height of summer. However, most of the women I meet in the chemotherapy ward these days wear their caps and and wigs, as I do myself. Several aspects of chemo are unpleasant; one might as well not add distress about one's appearance to them. Even today, only my husband and daughter-in-law have actually seen me without a head covering. All Skype calls to grandchildren are carried out with my head firmly bewigged.

So, what of my wig, then? Well, the wig is splendid, much better than my 'real' hair ever was. It is lighter in colour as I couldn't get an exact match, and far thicker and fuller. Indeed, I am seriously thinking of wearing that wig for the rest of my life for, like many women, I think my normal hair is awful. It is lank and flat and never holds its shape. It only takes a couple of raindrops or a puff of steam and any pretence of styling immediately collapses. And as for hats! Just two minutes of a hat, and my hair used to emerge clinging to my scalp for dear life - as well it might, given what was in store for it! Mind you, on the rare occasion I have worn a hat with my wig, I have soon discovered that divesting myself of my head covering, usually in a public place, has resulted in my taking off my hair as well. How mortifying can that be!

Hair means so much to us, particularly to women. My father and husband, both of whom had lost most of their hair by the time they were thirty, seem to have been quite unfazed by the experience. Not for them a Donald Trump comb over. For women however, it is different. This was explained very effectively by two alopecia sufferers who were given a slot on one of the news programmes recently. It had taken years for them to accept the inevitable and, eventually, to embrace it. Not for them the twenty five-year-old journalist's ersatz and unnecessary bravado.

Most women I know despair about their hair. It is either too straight or too curly, too silky or too wiry. It is either not blonde enough or too dark. Hairstyle provides a very satisfying battleground for teenagers and their parents. It certainly was for me. I didn't scandalise my parents by dying it lurid colours. No, my rebellion was to do with the length.

Coming from what once had been a Plymouth Brethren background, I was brought up to believe that a woman's crowning glory was her hair. My parents really did think, when I was a girl, that the Bible had ruled that women should not have their hair cut. All the female family members wore their hair in buns of one sort or another, including both my mother and grandmother. Our hair was never cut, but could be tidied up by running a lighted candle up and down a twisted hank to singe the ends. Bonkers! I used to be terrified.

But just think about it. There was God, not long after millions of ordinary people had slaughtered each other in concentration camps and refugees were still tramping across the length and breadth of Europe, categorically insisting that the really important issue in life was to do with the length of one's hair.

Now, in the 1950s, little girls wore their hair in bobs, usually with a big floppy bow to one side. Not me. I was condemned to plaits - the only girl in both primary and secondary school to be inflicted with them. They came down nearly to my waist and made excellent bell ropes for tugging on and not just by my brothers. Bullies not only sniggered at the old-fashioned styling, but routinely yanked at these plaits in playgrounds and corridors. How I pleaded with my mother to have my hair cut, but to no avail. God had decreed.

So it was, that at sixteen, just when all the other girls at school were trying to grow their hair into long 1960s curtains, off I went to the hairdresser's with my friends and came back with a very trendy bob. It transformed my appearance, boosted my confidence and completely changed the way other girls treated me. My mother, astonishingly, and it has to be said, apologetically, accepted my unilateral action. Her only concern was my father, who actually just capitulated with a few nominal grumbles about the beauty of long hair. Neither of them could have denied how much better I looked. A major rebellion which had terrified me for days in advance, just fizzled out.

Yet, that little anecdote does illustrate how very important the way we wear our hair is to our self esteem and our image of ourselves. No longer the dowdy old-fashioned butt of incessant teasing, I was released into that wonderful experience of being just the same as everyone else. Which is, after all, what most teenagers want.

Because of the importance of hair in our culture, for a woman to lose her hair can often be seen as a loss of femininity. 'Old maids', as my generation was brought up to call them, were often laughed at for their thinning hair. Just think of The Witches, Roald Dahl's popular novel for children. Remember the horror when the witches are revealed to the main character, removing their wigs and displaying their horrible bald heads. My granddaughter found The Witches terrifying.

The opposite is also true, of course. Western fairy tales have often featured heroines, usually princesses, with long flowing locks. Rapunzel is a case in point. 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!' just wouldn't work otherwise. Disney versions of these fairy tales have only strengthened the concept of long hair as a symbol of desirable femininity. There is scarcely a school girl or twenty-year-old who doesn't have long hair. Yet very long hair can be impractical. Having eligible and ineligible princes attempting to climb up it must have been particularly excruciating for poor passive Rapunzel. Her authoritarian father had clearly no idea how painful it must have been - or perhaps he just didn't care.

Other cultures do not seem to have quite as many hang ups as we do about hair. Several of my ex-colleagues in Uganda had their hair cut very close to the scalp, and very elegant it looked too. That is how the President's wife wore her hair, and it was required of pupils in most schools. Shorn heads are traditional among many African women and very practical, though it is interesting that 'natural' African hair is coming back into fashion, what used to be known as an 'Afro' hairstyle. Fewer women these days, it is said, are 'relaxing' their hair to make it straight like western hair, and consequently easier to manage. When I lived in Uganda I had to be sure not to buy 'relaxing' shampoos by mistake. My naturally lank straight-as-a-die hair would not have survived such treatment.

Whereas many West African women enjoy wearing the most wonderfully elaborate scarves, tied in a myriad of imaginative ways, many East African women have tended to focus on the hairstyle itself. I was astonished in Uganda by the creativity and variety of my friends' hair styles. Whereas we western women wore the same old hairstyle day after day, our African colleagues seemed to change their styles on a weekly and sometimes what seemed like a daily, basis. Many East African women also wore wigs, usually straight ones. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian author, has spoken interestingly about African women's inventiveness and pride in their hair. 

This flexibility in changing one's hairstyle, however, had its drawbacks, for Stuart and me. As westerners, we were used to using hairstyle as a clue to identity. However, many is the time in both Uganda and Malawi when I have walked into a room and completely failed to recognise the colleagues with whom I was working just the day before. Factor wig wearing into the equation and no wonder we never recognised anyone!

One of my closest friends in Uganda was Christine, our office manager. One day she would have close cropped hair, another day she would have cornrows and yet another day she would have long extensions. Some of these styles took two or three hours of excruciating manipulation by the hairdresser to set in place. Our repeated failure to recognise Christine became an ongoing and affectionately shared office joke.

Well, I never was intended to be a Rapunzel: too impatient for life in a tower, though a recent injury to my foot has meant that I am spending longer in our third floor flat than any sensible person would choose. My teenage rebellion meant that I long ago put paid to random princes taking short cuts by way of my hair. My rejection of princesshood, however, has possibly gone too far. Nobody wants to completely lose their hair, whatever a hapless juvenile journalist might think and not even when one no longer believes that it is one's God-given crowning glory. Splendid though my wig might be, thank goodness that my real hair in all its lankness, straightness and shapelessness will eventually grow back.

Monday, 5 February 2018

How two lads from Peebles stirred the educational pot

All is quiet and respectable in Peebles these days.

So it should be in a Royal Burgh established in 1152. Not that its age or status kept Peebles out of trouble, of course, though at least its Borders Reivers no longer ride south to raid English cattle. The town still remembers when in 1346, the Scottish Parliament held an emergency meeting on a square off the main street after King David II's defeat and capture by the English at Neville's Cross. Indeed, it is thanks to the European Union as well as the locals that this corner of history has been kept alive.

Nevertheless, the English haven't burnt down the town since 1549. Memories of the siege of nearby Neidpath Castle 1650 by Oliver Cromwell have long receded. The 15th century Bridge has survived the turmoil of centuries and still spans the broad banks of the River Tweed.

The river doesn't always behave well, of course, as we saw on our most recent visit. No sitting quietly on the park benches, unless you were prepared to swim out to them. Flooding is a regular hazard.

Every time we visit Peebles, we find out something new, for this is a town which presents various faces to its visitors. This time we turned our back on its broad main street and quiet river and did some exploring. We were particularly interested in the story of William and Robert Chambers, who, from humble beginnings in Peebles, enriched the intellectual life not only of this small Borders town, but also of Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, and of the country as a whole.

What makes the Chambers' story so interesting? Well, partly because the Chambers boys exemplify so well traditional Scottish belief in the 'lad o' pairts', the talented boy who can rise through the education system from relatively lowly origins to take the highest offices in the land. Centralised organisation of education goes back to the Scottish Reformation of 1560. In 1616, the Privy Council required every parish to establish a school, paid for by a landowners' tax. Landowners had to provide a school building and school master. The education provided in these schools, and overseen by the Church, was basic and short, and attendance was not compulsory. So, not every boy was able to attend school or to remain until the age of 15 when, in Scotland, students could start studying at university. Nevertheless, parish schools provided boys like the Chambers with precious opportunities not only to better themselves but to better their communities and Scotland itself.

The Chambers boys were born in an area of Peebles called Biggiesknowe, in the 'Old Town', in one of a row of weavers' cottages built in 1796. William was born in 1800 and Robert in 1802.

The family lived on the middle floor, with the workshop in the basement and cotton yarn stored in the attic. The boys' father worked as an agent for local weavers. They were educated in local schools. The Burgh Schools survive at the foot of School Brae, in poor condition, sadly: the English School founded 1766 (left)and the Grammar School 1812 (right).

However, the boys were not dependent only on their schooling for the education they received. They were natural autodidacts. Robert, in particular, borrowed books from the circulating library and read those his father had bought, including a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This belief in continuing education was to prove very important for their future lives.

Sadly, the Chambers family lost money during the Napoleonic Wars and their business was affected by the introduction of the power loom. Bankrupt, in 1813 they moved from Peebles to the Edinburgh slums. William was apprenticed to a bookseller while Robert continued his education at the Royal High School (founded 1128), in the old building at High School Yards in Infirmary Street. Built in 1777, it is now the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation. Walter Scott also attended the school. The Royal High School still exists, though in a different location to the west of the city.

Both boys proved to be farsighted thinkers and entrepreneurs. William opened his own bookshop on Broughton Street in Edinburgh's New Town and developed a printing business. He was committed to popular education and the use of modern technology to make printing cheaper and reading matter more accessible to ordinary people. Robert also opened a bookshop, on Leith Walk, where he began by selling his father's books. In due course, the brothers combined their businesses and became Edinburgh's premier publishing house and booksellers: W and R Chambers. They produced magazines and periodicals, such as the Chambers Literary Journal, as well as books about Walter Scott, a personal friend, and Robert Burns. Robert wrote and William printed.  Their most famous books are still published and popular, though in new editions: Chambers Dictionary and Chambers Encyclopaedia. They had an immeasurable influence on Scottish educational and intellectual life not just during the decades in which they lived, but for another hundred and fifty years.

Both men were recognised by their fellow Scots. Robert was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840, followed by William in 1860. While they remained partners in their publishing business, their paths then diverged somewhat. William became Lord Provost of Edinburgh and was responsible for several improvements during his tenure from 1863 to 1869: the renovation of St Giles, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and the slum clearance and reconstruction of areas of the dilapidated Old Town: Jeffrey Street, St Mary's Street, Blackfriars Street and the street which now bears his name - Chambers Street, where his statue stands.

However, one of William's most interesting projects was educational: the creation in 1859 of the Chambers Institution in his home town of Peebles. It was founded 'for various useful purposes having in view the social, oral and educational improvement of the community.' To house his Institution, William bought and remodelled an old building in Peebles High Street, known as the Queensberry Lodging, constructed in the 16th century.

The Institution contained a library, an art gallery and museum 'for the instruction of the public' and a Great Hall for public meetings and exhibitions. Chambers gave the Institution to the town, which continues to use it for its original purposes: education and cultural enrichment. It was also used as a hall for the town council. The Institution's beautiful quadrangle houses one of the most original war memorials in Scotland, erected in 1922.

You can visit the library, the exhibition space, the original museum and the renovated Chambers Room. The latter contains a range of artefacts from the local area, very well presented and labelled by local volunteers, together with an amazing plasterwork replica of the Parthenon Frieze. In 1812, Chambers also commissioned an original neo-classical frieze, the Alexander Frieze, by Bertil Thorvaldsen. This represents in allegorical terms, the entry of Napoleon into Rome. Well worth having a chat with the very helpful curator.

Interestingly, Andrew Carnegie, the famous philanthropist, said that he had gained his inspiration as public benefactor from the work of William Chambers. Indeed, Carnegie helped to pay for an extension to the Chambers Institution in Peebles in 1912.

Meanwhile, Robert Chambers went in a very different intellectual direction from his brother William, though they remained business partners. That direction was original, thought provoking and caused him some trouble. Robert was very interested in geology and was elected Fellow of the Geological Society of London. He published various books about geology. However one book was so challenging in the theories it presented that he never actually put his name to it or had it published by the family firm. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Nevertheless, it was read by all and sundry, including Prince Albert who read it aloud to Queen Victoria. Indeed, it became a bestseller.

Published in 1844, Vestiges anticipated the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection in 1859. His book, Robert said, was a first attempt to 'connect the natural sciences in a history of creation'. It presented the arguments for the mutation of species. At that time, evolutionary theory was considered to be politically radical. It also challenged conventional religious belief. Indeed, churchmen were divided in their reaction to the book. The established churches found it threatening as it suggested that God did not actively promote social and natural hierarchies. They claimed that it attacked the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries. Freethinking Quakers and Unitarians, however, admired the book. Robert was not afraid to open up to discussion by ordinary people some challenging areas of thought which would in time transform their understanding of the universe and of their social, economic and political place within it.

One of the strongest opponents of Vestiges was Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and son of William Wilberforce, the abolitionist. The Bishop is famous for his role in the debate on evolution organised 15 years later, in 1860, by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in which he attacked the view than humans and apes shared common ancestors. To be fair to Wilberforce, he  was concerned of the implications of Darwinism for the promotion of racist attitudes and eugenics, issues close to his heart because of his father's great work. During the famous public debate Wilberforce asked Thomas Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or grandfather that he was descended from a monkey. Huxley apparently replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Well, neither William nor Robert Chambers could be accused of 'obscuring the truth'. On the contrary, throughout their lives and in their different ways, they endeavoured to open up to the general public hitherto unfamiliar aspects of contemporary knowledge, understanding and thought. The Chambers brothers promoted and supported 'lifelong learning' before the concept had even been heard of. They helped to democratise education and make it part of everyone's lives.

These two lads o'pairts certainly gave the educational and social pot a very good stir. 

William Chambers: Peebles, Peebles Civic Society, Tweeddale Museum and Gallery, Peebles

The Chambers Room, Museum and Gallery Service, Scottish Borders Council

Town Walk: A Guide to a Tour of the Royal Burgh, Peebles Civic Society

Monday, 22 January 2018

No, I won't mind my own business, and neither should you

Would you allow a doctor to surgically remove the genitals of your daughter, sister or wife? Indeed, would you actually ask him to? If you are a woman, is this the kind of request you would make about your own body?

Shocking questions, aren't they?

Yesterday I found myself in an extended online exchange through a comment thread about the petition presented to the Machakos High Court in Kenya by a doctor called Tatu Kamau. Kamau is proposing to legalise female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been outlawed since 2011. FGM is the practice in some traditional African and Arab societies of cutting out the clitoris in order to deny women any sexual pleasure. The reasoning is that if women do not find sexual intercourse enjoyable, they are less likely to be unfaithful.

FGM may also involve carrying out additional 'surgery' as well. Such surgery might include partial or full removal of the labia in order to make the genitals 'tidy' and more attractive to men.  It might also include sewing up the vaginal opening so that only a small space remains, sufficient to allow menstrual blood to pass. The purpose of this procedure is to make the tearing of a virgin's hymen during intercourse more pleasurable to her husband.

FGM is traditionally carried out by the time girls reach puberty, but sometimes on very young girls of six or seven. It is usually performed by older women using a razor blade and without any form of anaesthesia. The pain is reportedly horrific. Sometimes the girls' wounds are pinned together using thorns. They may die from loss of blood. In some communities girls are not even allowed to make a noise while it happens. As the same razor blade is used for all the girls undergoing mutilation, the likelihood of HIV being transmitted is quite high. Infections, including sepsis, are common.

FGM is a cultural, not a religious, practice and marks initiation into 'womanhood'. Once the procedure has been carried out, girls are considered ready for marriage. This may often mean child marriage to a much older man. In societies which practise FGM, women who have not been 'cut' (mutilated) may be excluded from community activities and denied food from community stores. They may not be allowed to go for water at the same time as other women.

Obviously, the short-term effects of FGM are unspeakably horrible. The long-term consequences are, however, grim. Young women will experience excruciating pain on their wedding nights. This pain may continue for the rest of their lives when they engage in intercourse. When they give birth, they may suffer lengthy and exhausting labour which lasts for days and may result in death. A common result is development of a fistula; that is their birth canal may rupture, tearing also the bladder and/or bowel. The result may be death or permanent incontinence which leads to social ostracisation, eviction from the family home and loss of their children.

So, why do families impose this practice on their daughters? Because it has 'always' been done. Girls must be married. An 'uncut' girl may be considered unmarriageable. The older women who carry out the procedure are paid and may rely on the fees for an income. They will not know any different because that is what happened to them when they were girls.

Indeed, it is attachment to the cultural element of traditions like FGM which makes them particularly resistant to change. The automatic answer to any online comment about such practices may well be 'but it is their culture'. 'So what?', I say. Lots of discontinued and thoroughly unpleasant practices have once been intrinsic parts of the culture of one society or another. While maypoles or morris dancing may be relatively positive manifestations of 'culture', drowning or burning witches, as we used to do here in Britain and as still happens in a number of countries elsewhere, clearly are not. The idea that we should continue with cultural practices which cause pain, harm and suffering is intolerable.

The UN estimates that about 27 out of 54 African countries practice FGM to some degree. In Kenya, the UN reports that one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 years has undergone FGM. Malawi, however, does not practice FGM, nor, on the whole, does Uganda, just across the border from Kenya. The only Ugandan girls whose genitals are mutilated are members of the Potok and Sabiny clans, part of the Maasai tribe of Kenya who live on the eastern side of the mountains which separate the two countries. NGOs working with the Ugandan Government have been successful in stamping out FGM in school-aged girls, often providing refuge for potential victims. Sadly the result has been that sometimes the girls are simply taken across the border to caves on the Kenyan side.

Another perverse result of recent success in combating FGM is a move towards mutilating older women after marriage, at the request of their husbands or of women themselves, almost certainly under pressure from their husbands, a covert form of domestic violence. And this is where the petition by Tatu Kamau comes in. He claims that these older women 'choose' to be mutilated and therefore, by carrying out the procedure in a medical clinic, doctors are simply providing welcome protection from infection. And you can see the logic. The main problem with this argument is the assumption that the choice these women make is 'free' and not influenced by family pressures or community convention. Such was the substance of the arguments I used during my online exchange.

However, in Kenya the practice is becoming less common as girls become educated and want lives and prospects for themselves which are different from the lives and prospects their mothers had. The rate of FGM currently stands at 21% overall, though it is as high as 94% in some ethnic groups. The rate in other countries is also still very high: 98% in Somalia, 87% in Egypt. In Ethiopia it is non-existent in some cultural groups and near-universal in others, averaging at 74%. In Nigeria, it varies according to region, averaging at 25% overall. In Ghana, prevalence is less than 5%. In time, with increasing opportunities for education, the practice of FGM is likely to die out - unless, of course, people like Tatu Kamau keep it alive by providing a 'modern' and 'hygienic' method of ensuring that women and girls submit to the decisions which their menfolk and communities make about their bodies, and their lives. Which is why I felt drawn to comment.

Oh, and incidentally, in case you think that FGM only affects girls and women in faraway countries, it is an increasingly significant issue in the UK. Girls from particular communities may either be taken to illegal 'cutters' in this country or, more likely perhaps, be taken abroad to have the procedure carried out there. Yet another issue for already over-burdened teachers to think about when their secondary students are absent.

However, that is as much as I want to write about the business of FGM. It is not the main topic of this post, but simply an immediate and timely example of the kinds of issues which may suddenly and unexpectedly impinge on our consciousness as we idly trawl through our Facebook feed. For me, other recent topics have included accounts of 'bloodsucking' rumours, lynchings and witchcraft in Malawi, the continuing issue of child marriage and the rights of girls to gain an education without being subject to sexual abuse. I have written about these subjects and about political issues such as corruption in government and its impact on health provision, education quality or supply of services like electricity, water or sanitation.

Only last week, the media reported that somewhere in Ghana, the local gods had pronounced through the village elders that girls should not be allowed to cross the river when they were menstruating. As it happens, and I don't think it is a coincidence, the girls' school happened to be on the other side of the river. Another example of 'culture' being used as an excuse to deny girls their rights.

Now, given that I live in Scotland and not sub-Saharan Africa, you may well ask what gives me the 'right' to reflect and comment on social issues in other people's countries? Surely FGM in Kenya or elsewhere is none of my business.

Well, we are all of us members of the human race. We are all members of the global community. We do not just live as individuals, but as members of societies, nations and groupings such as the European Union or East African Community. Above all, we live in countries which are members of the United Nations. We are responsible for other people, not just ourselves, and when they are being treated inhumanely by their government or community, we have a moral responsibility, just as if a child or adult were being treated cruelly in the house next door. We can't keep saying to ourselves that it is someone else's responsibility to protect the weak or to right injustices, someone else's job to raise awareness about an issue, to inform, to educate, to share, to debate. It is important for Tatu Kamau in Kenya to realise the depth and extent of feeling about what may seem to him to be a very reasonable proposal. That does not mean that I am unaware of the danger of stepping clumsily into contexts about which I do not know enough, of ignoring the nuances of quite complex cultural challenges or of completely misjudging the situation. The issue of FGM is, however, clear cut.

So how do we know which issues it is justifiable for us to address?

I find that many of the issues which arouse my interest, anger or pity - or desire to comment - are to do with human rights. The global community has a shared understanding of what constitutes these rights, and has recorded the key elements in agreed international statements. FGM, for example, is relevant to several of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5, for example, states: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 19.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the duty to 'take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.'

In Britain and elsewhere in the west, we have become increasingly aware of our own most appalling cases of child abuse, often perpetrated by the very people who are responsible for protecting children such as teachers and carers in residential schools, priests and pastors. We have been horrified by accounts of organised grooming gangs. Children are beaten and killed by their own parents in plain sight of the community and the professionals charged with looking after them. The perpetrators were able to carry out their actions because others were 'minding their own business'. Child abuse and neglect or domestic violence in the west may look a bit different from the abuse, neglect and violence seen in parts of Africa or Asia, because people's cultures and way of life are different. Nevertheless, they are essentially caused by the same misuse of power and failure to recognise women and children as individuals with their own needs and rights. Across the world, the cycle of violence continues because those who are damaged often go on to inflict damage themselves. And too many people think it is 'none of their business' when they hear the cries or see the bruises. There is indeed plenty to criticise in our own societies.

I believe that it is important that we talk, discuss and write about such things because only then will we come to shared understanding of what is or is not acceptable. And that includes people from other countries commenting on the way we do things here in Britain whether that is how we treat our immigrant communities, the effectiveness or otherwise of our healthcare or our provision for the elderly.

Some elements of British culture may appear quite antithetical to the values of people living in other societies. What do foreign visitors think when they watch sectarian marches in Scotland and Northern Ireland, an intrinsic part of our 'culture' and sometimes quite striking both visually and musically? Yet these marches represent traditional prejudice against other faith communities which can result in violence and increase mutual suspicion and resentment. I think outsiders have a perfect right to comment on whether these aspects of our culture should be allowed to continue, as with FGM.

Living in a global community means that perforce we have to recognise that there are other ways of doing things, just as traditional societies are having to develop to fit in with the expectations and opportunities of modern society. We cannot be too sentimental. We may be fascinated by what we have seen on the television about Maasai dress, cattle-rearing and dancing. However, marriage by rape, a traditional element of courtship, and genital mutilation are no longer tolerable in today's society. The digital revolution has ensured that everybody's business is now our business, and our business is also theirs.

We won't all respond to - or become incensed by - the same issues, of course, which is just as well. Indeed, how we respond to the events which draw our attention may differ, for we are individuals with different personalities, skills, experiences and social confidence. Some people may go on protest marches, sign online petitions or write to the newspapers. Some might provide financial or practical support to organisations working in the fields of rights and protection.

As for me, I write. Just try to stop me.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

UNICEF data on FGM

Kenyan doctor goes to court to legalise female genital mutilation, Thomas Reuters Foundation on All Africa, 19 January 2018

Malawi's bloodsucker scare: how magical thinking impacts health delivery, Vicky Allan, The Herald, 21 January 2018

I took on my village elders to end FGM, a Maasai girl tells how she escaped FGM, BBC World Service, 23 January 2018

Also these posts

Are you a vampire or just a bit different?

Championing the rights of female students

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Slavery in Scotland: then and now

The name 'Joseph Knight' meant nothing to me until a couple of months ago when my book group selected James Robertson's historical novel for discussion. I had enjoyed other books by Robertson, but this one had passed me by, despite having received the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award shortly after it was published in 2003. A huge gap in my reading, then, and one which I was only too glad to fill, even if rather tardily.

For those of you who don't know the novel, it is set during the years 1746 to 1803, in other words from the aftermath of Culloden and during the Scottish Enlightenment. The book follows the fortunes of the Wedderburn family of Ballindean in Perthshire and recounts the experiences of John Wedderburn's slave Joseph Knight, whom he had brought to Scotland from his plantations in Jamaica. It is set in the streets and houses of Dundee, Fife and Edinburgh which are associated with the Wedderburns and their friends, as well of course, as in their Jamaican plantations.

The prosperous Wedderburn family is still around today, in both Scotland and the West Indies. The novel paints a vivid picture of the conduct of Scottish plantation owners and the lives of their slaves. It also depicts the range of views on slavery held by some of the most famous figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, some quite surprising. David Hume, for example, was a strong supporter of slavery. Most of the characters in the book are based on real people including the eponymous hero, the Scottish gentry and aristocrats, and famous thinkers and lawyers. Lord Monboddo, who supported John Wedderburn, was a real landowner and lawyer who lived in Monboddo House just outside Stonehaven. James Boswell, with his ambivalent reactions to slavery - not morally acceptable but an economic necessity - also makes an appearance. Rabbie Burns, Scotland's most famous poet,  nearly went to the plantations as a 'negro driver' or overseer.

In an interview in 2011, James Robertson said, "As I gathered information, I became fascinated by the profound humanity of some of the people in the story, which was matched only by the hypocrisy of men in Edinburgh coffee houses debating what constituted a civil society while enjoying the products of slave labour thousands of miles away."

The court case brought by Joseph Knight to gain his freedom here in Scotland was a cause celebre at the time. In 1772, a case won by a slave in England in 1772, Somerset's case, had encouraged slaves in Scotland to believe that they too had a right to freedom.  Knight had lost his first case against Wedderburn in Perth. When, in 1777, he appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Wedderburn assumed that Knight would lose again. Wedderburn's lawyers argued that as Knight was his property, he had a right to do with him as he wished. The arguments of Knight's lawyers, principally John Maclaurin, Lord Dreghorn, had a very significant influence on people's understanding of ideas such as what we mean by 'freedom' and whether human beings could be considered 'property'. As you might expect, the case was a major influence on the abolitionist cause.

I found the Joseph Knight case fascinating. The more background reading I did, the more I became aware of how intrinsic to Scottish society, both in the past and still today, was the income derived from the slave trade and, particularly, from tobacco and sugar plantations. The same was true in England, of course, but this case arose in Scotland, so it is Scotland that is very largely the subject of this post. One of the aspects of slavery which surprised me was how widespread its extent and impact was geographically and, indeed, socially.

To begin with, some of the 'examples' of Scottish slavery were quite 'cosy' and at first sight seemed divorced from our lives today. Unsurprisingly, many of the 'Big Houses' were associated with slavery. Scipio Kennedy, for example, captured in Guinea in West Africa around 1700 when he was five or six and taken to the West Indies, was bought by Andrew Douglas of Mains near Milngavie. Scipio was taken to Culzean Castle to serve as slave to Lady Jean Kennedy. He seems to have been treated well. He was eventually granted his freedom and carried on working for the Kennedys as a servant, even being quite generously provided for in Lady Jean's will. The National Trust for Scotland have recently excavated Scipio's quite substantial house. Nevertheless, would Scipio's kind treatment have compensated for his being removed from his family, culture and home? Somehow, I doubt it. How would your five-year-old have felt?

Many well-known Scots, including men involved on both sides of the Joseph Knight case, had black servants, who would have come to Scotland as slaves. The Dowager Countess Stair owned a black slave called Oronoce in the 1740s. Slaves were often given ironic classical names like Caesar or, indeed, Scipio. The famous Glassford portrait in the collection of Glasgow Museums once depicted the family's black servant on the left, though the figure has long faded or been painted out. Hugh Miller, the self-taught geologist, shared a desk with a black boy, one of several in the area, at his school in Cromarty on the Black Isle, for slaves might be taught to read and count, useful skills in their masters' businesses. In Edinburgh, wealthy families used to send their slaves to Jock's Lodge, half a mile from where we live, in order to learn useful skills. Joseph Knight, for example, learnt to cut hair.

As you might expect, a number of these slaves, like Joseph Knight, tried to escape. When that happened, their owners would place advertisements in newspapers seeking information and threatening anyone who tried to help them. In March 1721, an advertisement appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, (now the Edinburgh Evening News) about a runaway slave called Ann, who wore a brass collar around her neck inscribed “Gustavos Brown in Dalkeith, his negro”.

And of course, newspapers were used to sell slaves. On August 30 1766the Courant carried an advertisement offering a 19-year-old woman and her baby boy for sale. Iain Whyte, author of Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery found records for around 70 slaves in Scotland, including personal servants, but also slaves who worked as tradesmen in their masters' businesses. 

A slave called James Montgomery, brought to Ayrshire from Virginia, was dragged to Port Glasgow behind horses when he had the temerity to be baptised. Not surprisingly he died in the Tolbooth before the ship back to Virginia sailed. Another slave, David Spens, also got baptised, this time in Wemyss Parish Church near Methil in Fife. He said, 'I am now by the Christian religion liberate and set at freedom from my yoke, bondage and slavery.' He was protected by a local farmer and local lawyers helped him issue writs of wrongful arrest. Other local people raised funds for his support - churchgoers, miners and salters. Sadly Spens died before his case could be heard.

However, Scotland's main links with slavery are less through those slaves transported here from the West Indies, but more through shipping slaves from Africa to the West Indies and goods back here to Scotland. Above all, Scotland benefited from the astonishingly high returns from plantations and the transformational effect this money had on society. After the abortive Darien expedition in the 1690s, Scotland was near bankrupt. By the mid-nineteenth century, Glasgow was Britain's second city and an industrial powerhouse (See Steven Mullen's Slave 'Merchant City'). Much of the money which made this transformation possible came from the slave trade. As you may imagine, Scotland's role in slavery is a controversial issue. Professor Tom Devine's seminal and challenging collection of essays: Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past: the Caribbean Connection, published in 2015, builds on work carried out by Scottish academics over the last decade. Much of this post is based on this research and on other books and articles listed at the end. They cover all areas of Scotland.

Montrose Museum estimates that 31 vessels registered to Montrose were involved in the trade. The famous Coutts family from Montrose set up a counting house in Edinburgh. In 1692 they founded a bank still used by the rich and, indeed, the Royal Family. One of their numerous sons was sent to Virginia to manage the tobacco business there. Other Montrose merchants took ‘black ivory’, or slaves, from the African coast to the tobacco plantations of Virginia.

Up to four vessels a year sailed from Leith to America, Jamaica and Grenada, part of the 'triangular trade'. They left carrying items like clothes for slaves, tools and household goods, and returned with cargoes such as rum, rice, sugar and spices. Provost William Alexander owned four such ships. The merchant James Gillespie made a fortune from importing tobacco from the slave plantations using the Port at Leith. 

Greenock and Port Glasgow were the main slave trading ports in Scotland, however, as Glasgow street names indicate: Jamaica , Antigua, Tobago and Virginia Streets and the Kingston Bridge. Still today, an area of the grandest Glasgow trading houses is proudly called Merchant City. Thirty ships were involved in the trade from Glasgow. £47 million worth of tobacco passed through its ports every year, more than from London.

Greenbank gardens, Clarkston - potential venue?However, a great deal of the Scottish trade was, in fact, carried out from English ports like Bristol and Liverpool, where Scottish ship owners set up very successful businesses. Indeed, 5000 such ships left from Liverpool. The Mearns History Society has carried out some fascinating research on just one slave trading family, the Allasons who built Greenbank House, Clarkston, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), whose image this is.

In 1763, Robert Allason, who had been a baker in Glasgow before becoming a trader in Port Glasgow, built Greenbank House from the profits of his Caribbean estates. He traded in both slaves and tobacco, using Liverpool as a base. His brother Sandy captained their ship The Beaufort, across the Atlantic three times between 1757 and 1759. Their ships sailed from Liverpool to the Caribbean, via Calabar in West Africa carrying nearly 1000 African men, women and children, 149 of whom died. The Allasons were just one such family business. Money made through shipping was invested in buildings and infrastructure across Scotland, not just in Glasgow. 

From research done at Aberdeen University, we know that Alexander Allardyce of Aberdeen began trading in slaves and then bought plantations in Jamaica. On his return a wealthy man, he became Lord Rector of Aberdeen University and MP for the Aberdeen boroughs. He bought estates in Dunnottar on the outskirts of Stonehaven. The mansion he built there has now been  demolished but Dunnottar Woods, which he planted, remain. His money also bought an elaborate memorial for his wife erected in St Nicholas Church Aberdeen.

William Forbes of Aberdeen was a coppersmith who manufactured sugar boiling pans and rum stills for Jamaica. With his profits he bought the Callendar estate, near Falkirk. The family married into the Allardyce family and joined their slave trading operation in Senegal.

Researchers from Aberdeen have pointed out that you did not have to be a slave owner to profit from slavery. Businessmen sold goods to slave owners in the Caribbean, for example, Aberdeen traders sent salted herring and rough linen cloth for use by slaves. They supplied the machinery required for producing sugar and distilling rum. In fact, some whisky distillers branched out into rum, like William Shand of The Burn and Arnhall near Fettercairn in Kincardineshire (now Aberdeenshire).

Other jobs were also necessary for the slave trade to work. Archibald Dalzel from Kirkliston outside Edinburgh managed the notorious Cape Coast Castle for ten years in what is now Ghana. Up to 1500 slaves at a time were held in dungeons for up to three months waiting for a slave ship before being sent to North America or the West Indies. Dalzel's book, History of Dahomey – An Inland Kingdom of Africa, argued in favour of the slave trade, claiming that it saved Africans from conflict between warring tribes.

It was common for Scots and English merchants to establish their own sugar and tobacco plantations overseas or create relationships with agreed suppliers for plantation goods. A higher proportion of Scots emigrated to the West Indies than from any other of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. About 4,000-5,000 Scots settled there before the Act of Union in 1707 and many more afterwards. Many of them gave their Caribbean plantations the names of their Scottish homes, for example, the Monymusk Estate in Jamaica, owned by Alexander Grant.

Planters could make a lot of money very quickly - if you survived the climate and diseases, that is. Most immigrants came from the gentry and middle classes, including doctors and, of course, sailors. Scotland produced far more doctors than could find work in Scotland, so work on the slave ships and plantations was a common choice. James Robertson from Yell in Shetland performed the important task of mapping the Jamaican plantations. Younger sons of the aristocracy who were unlikely to inherit, often went to the West Indies. Many planters, like John Wedderburn, were motivated by the need to support dependent mothers and sisters. When slavery came to an end, 40% of the claims for compensation came from older women who depended on slave property to provide an income.

A third of the plantation owners in Jamaica were Scots. Seventy per cent of the names in the Jamaican telephone directory are Scottish: Campbell (the most common), Farquhar, McKenzie, McFarlane and Lamond, for slaves usually took their owners' namesMost white planters did not put down permanent roots in the Caribbean, however. They did not build many churches or schools, for example, as they did in India. Instead, they went back to their families in Scotland once their plantations were doing well and could be left with overseers. In Scotland, they built houses with their fortunes. Slavery was a very profitable business.

When slavery came to an end in 1833, the Scots owned more land in the West Indies than the English, and far more than the Irish or Welsh. In 1800, there were 300,000 slaves on the island of Jamaica, and 10,000 Scots. The Scottish colonial elite was very powerful. No wonder so many influential Scots were opposed to emancipation, despite the vigorous abolitionist activity of others of their compatriots. Tory MP Henry Dundas, later Lord Melville, whose statue stands in St Andrew's Square in Edinburgh, gave as his reason for opposing William Wilberforce's abolitionist cause the fact that Jamaica provided a third of the income for the British Empire. Wilberforce had been trying to get his Bill through Parliament since 1790. Every time he put it forward, Dundas got it deferred. Even when it did succeed, the immensely powerful Dundas argued that slavery should be 'gradually abolished'. The trade continued for getting on for 30 years, during which time uncountable African slaves continued to suffer and be killed.

Here is the 18th century Dundas mansion in St Andrew's Square, one of the first to be built in Edinburgh's New Town, which eventually became the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Glasgow's Tobacco Lords were equally, if not more, powerful. Tom Devine describes Glasgow's West India Association as 'one of the most vocal and powerful anti-abolition pressure groups in the United Kingdom, famed for its unyielding and unrelenting opposition to the liberation of slaves in the Empire.'

Interestingly - and movingly - genuine opposition to slavery came from Scotland's own exploited workers. For example, the indentured coal miners of Fife contributed to Joseph Knight's legal expenses. They saw the parallel between their own slave-like conditions and those of the black slaves. Solidarity with the victims of slavery continued to be a feature of campaigns by British workers. Years later, in 1863, Lincoln thanked workers in the cotton mills of Lancashire who, unlike the mill owners, supported his embargo on cotton picked by slaves. He arranged for relief to be sent to them and their starving families who had suffered so bady from the subsequent loss of work.

However, these Scottish and English workers were exceptions. Most people associated with the slave trade and Caribbean plantations made fortunes and these fortunes built many of Scotland's most impressive mansions. The article by Steven Mullen, Slave 'Merchant City', depicts some of the beautiful Glaswegian buildings constructed with slave money, like the Gallery of Modern Art, once the Cuninghame Mansion. William Cuninghame was one of the four Tobacco Lords of Glasgow. Here are TripAdvisor's photographs of this wonderful building. I am not aware that its slaving origins are made much of either in the building or in Glasgow generally, though perhaps that is now changing.

The Church of St Andrew's in the Square, now a Glasgow concert venue, was also built with slave money, as was the splendid Episcopal St Andrew's by the Green. Tobacco merchants had streets named after them: Andrew Buchanan, John Glassford, Archibald Ingram and James Dunlop. 

In 1773 James Wedderburn, one of John Wedderburn's younger brothers, moved back to Scotland and bought an estate at Inveresk, just outside Musselburgh and a few miles from Edinburgh. There with the profits from his extensive sugar plantations, James built Inveresk Lodge and its beautiful garden overlooking the River Esk, now owned by NTS. While in Jamaica, James had fathered several children by the slaves he raped. One of these mixed-race children, named Robert, arrived at Inveresk Lodge to make himself known to his father. Humiliatingly however, James rejected him and denigrated the reputation of his mother. 

Robert Wedderburn wrote about his mother's experiences of abuse and of how she and his grandmother were flogged, in a memoir entitled The Horrors of Slavery. Here he describes being turned away from Inveresk Lodge with 'small beer and a bent sixpence'. Robert had a eventful life thereafter. He became a leading radical on the fringes of the Cato Street Conspiracy and a key leader of the abolitionist movement. His book became very influential.

Brodick Castle Main Building East 01.jpgIn 1810, Susan Beckford, heiress to an enormous fortune derived from Jamaican sugar estates, married into the Douglas-Hamilton family, her husband in due course becoming the Duke of Hamilton. Thus the profits of slavery were handed on to all his successors. In 1844,the Duke at the time tripled the size of Brodick Castle on the Island of Arran (NTS). Susan herself lived at the splendid Hamilton Palace, now demolished. They also built the hunting lodge ate Chatelherault, which still stands.

CC BY-SA 3.0, House in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, a beautiful Adam mansionwas owned by Ninian Homes who had been sent to Virginia and then Grenada to earn his living. By 1764, he had two plantations worked by over 400 slaves growing sugar and spices. Ninian became Governor of Grenada in 1793 and was murdered in 1795 during an uprising.The novel Joseph Knight describes a slave rising such as this in Jamaica. The final owner was John David Home Robertson, a Labour MP, who made it into a Trust. The house is now a partner of the National Galleries of Scotland, seen here in a photo from Wikipedia.

Alexander Grant, son of a minister, made an enormous fortune in an astonishingly short time from his three Jamaican plantations. With it he built Aberlour House in Banffshire. His possessions in both Scotland and Jamaica were inherited by his niece Margaret Gordon MacPherson Grant who used the money to build St Margaret's Church in Aberlour, the organ in Inverness Episcopal Cathedral, and the Aberlour Orphanage which eventually became the Aberlour Childcare Trust. And there we have one of problems with slave money. It spread throughout Scottish society, some of it used for grandiose vanity projects but some of it used for purposes which benefited a whole range of Scots, some of them among the most poor and the vulnerable. Some of this slave money may have benefited you and me and our families.

In Edinburgh, the fortune James Gillespie made from Virginia plantation tobacco built the school that bears his name. John Newlands, of Bathgate, made a fortune using slave labour in Jamaica. He left thousands in his will to establish Bathgate Academy. Dollar Academy, Fortrose Academy and Inverness (Royal) Academy were all founded or developed with slave money. One hopes that at least the young people currently in these schools learn how they were built. In 1750 Dr Archibald Kerr left his Jamaican estate, 39 slaves and with an annual income of around £220, to the management of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.
How do we know so much about the extent of slavery in Scotland? When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, the 46,000 British slave owners were given compensation for the loss of their 'property', ie the slaves on their estates. The government put £20 million by for this: about £2 -2.5 billion in today's' money. It was the largest payout to a single industry interest in the UK's history until the financial bailout in 2009. As there was no income tax at the time, the money came from the Consumption Tax, which , in effect, means that the poor paid for the 'lost property' of the rich. University College London (UCL) has set up the Legacy of British Slave-Ownership database which records which plantation owners received compensation. People in Edinburgh were twice as likely to own a slave as a person in Glasgow or London during the same period. 

Plantation owners from the Montrose area included a James Cruikshank of Langley Park. Patrick, his brother, formerly of Glenskinno near Hillside, was given compensation of £23,000 by the UK government for the 800 slaves on his estates. 

The Edinburgh Slavery Map developed by Edinburgh University, draws on the UCL data. In Edinburgh, one in 1,238 residents had connections to plantations compared to London where it was one in 1,721 people in the that much larger city. The whole of the New Town was built with profits from slavery. The Edinburgh map shows that the house next door but one to Bute House, the First Minister's residence in Charlotte Square, belonged to a slave owner.  One of the biggest single payments from the Slave Compensation Commission went to Peter McClagan of Great King Street who in 1836 received £21,480 10 shillings and 10 pence for 407 slaves at a plantation in British Guiana, approximately £1.7million in today’s money. A slave owner, John Blackburn of Queen Street, submitted three claims for 638 slaves in Jamaica. 

John Gladstone was a merchant and slave owner whose son was William Ewart Gladstone, the British Prime Minister. John Gladstone owned over 2,508 slaves in Jamaica and Guyana for which he received £106,769 in compensation, the equivalent in today’s money of £83 million, the biggest recorded pay-out. Once he received his money, Gladstone expelled most of his African workers and imported a large number of indentured servants from India, tied to him by their debt, having falsely promised to provide them with schools and medical treatment. Gladstone didn't pay them any wages as he said they were paying off their debts: just another form of slavery.

With his compensation money, Gladstone bought Fasque House, near Fettercairn in the County of Kincardine. During the winter he and his family lived at 11 Atholl Crescent in Edinburgh. He also used his slave compensation for various good works. He endowed St Thomas’s Church in Leith, now a Sikh Temple, a manse next door, a free school for boys and one for girls, a "house for female incurables", and a public rose garden. In 1846 Sir Robert Peel, the outgoing Prime Minister, made Gladstone 1st Baronet, of Fasque and Balfour.

However, compensation was also claimed by middle class people who lived in Edinburgh streets like Forth Street, Albany Street, India Street, Gilmour Place, York Place and Gayfield Square. Indeed, slave owners lived across Scotland. The document Scotland and Glasgow records of slave compensation demonstrates quite how many people benefited from slavery.

And by how much did they benefit? The businessman George Rainy of Inverness was paid £146,295, the equivalent of £124 million in 2017, to free 2794 slaves from his 30 plantations in British Guiana. Merchant George Parker, from Ayrshire, was paid £91,000 for his 1741 slaves on nine sites in British Guiana: £77 million today. Boyd Alexander, of Mauchline, Ayrshire received £43,259 (£36.7 million) and David and Alexander  Lyon of Balintore Castle, Forfarshire received £46,854 (£39.8 million).

Dr Ima Jackson, a slavery researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University said: “The people in Scotland who were compensated are our establishment as we know it today."

Even the Church benefited, not just through the acquisition of buildings. Leaders of the Free Church were major beneficiaries. The Marquis of Breadalbane shared £6,630 for the 379 enslaved people of the Hope Estate in Jamaica; Francis Brown Douglas, advocate, received almost £3,700 for one estate in St Vincent and a share of the compensation for a second. The Free Church itself received financial support from the Southern slave states of America. 'Send back the Money!' was a vigorous campaign to free the Church from its links with these states, promoted by people like Thomas Chalmers, church minister, professor and social reformer and Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and famous American abolitionist leader.

So, where do we go with all this Scottish evidence? We live in the houses built by slavers. Our children go to the schools they constructed. We use the hospitals erected using money earned from the dead bodies of their African, Caribbean and American victims. The profits of slavery have been passed down through the wills of generation after generation of Scottish people, middle class as well as aristocracy. The view of many Scottish academics is that this aspect of Scottish history has not just been forgotten: it has been deliberately erased.

Should we knock the buildings down? I think the answer is obvious: No. The great mansions of Edinburgh and Glasgow are architectural treasures. They are part of our urban landscapes. What about the Codrington library of All Souls, Oxford, built with the blood of the slaves of Barbados? What about Bristol's concert hall, the Colston Hall, named after Edward Colston, who founded a school there in the early 18th century using his slave wealth and his investments in the Royal African Company set up for London merchants under the Stuarts? Campaigners, many from the city’s Afro-Caribbean community, have called for the hall’s name to be changed.

The Royal Family were involved in slavery from early on. In England, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I had given financial backing to slave-trading voyages. After the Union of the Crowns, the Stuart King James VI/1 first set up royal approval for the Company of Adventurers of London Trading to the ports of Africa (a joint stock country whose business was slavery), and the Duke of York, the brother of King Charles II arranged to send 3,000 slaves annually from Africa to Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean, each branded with his own initials, DY - Duke of York. When our own Queen Elizabeth visited the Caribbean early in her reign, she stayed on the sugar plantation which had been owned by her cousin's family, Lord Harewood, since the 1780s.

There have been campaigns to demolish the statues of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford. In a different context there have been periodic campaigns to demolish the statue of the Duke of Sutherland, who ruthlessly cleared his estates of his Highland tenants and members of his clan. There have been similar debates about what to do with the Statue of Dundas in Edinburgh's St Andrew Square. The latest I read is that the Council is considering erecting a plaque about Dundas' role in delaying Abolition. I hope they do so.

Knocking these buildings and memorials down is not going to resurrect the dead.

Should we rename the streets? Several journalists, mostly in Glasgow, have proposed this solution. Some have suggested that the names should be replaced with those of abolitionists. My view is that we should not do this. I don't think you can sanitise history by wiping it out. Do we really want our descendants to forget Scotland's involvement in slavery? Far better is the suggestion that these streets and buildings should have plaques which point out their origins. Education, in other words.

Education about slavery is a mixed picture in Scotland. The National Trust has produced good quality booklets about the links between its buildings and slavery. It worked with Learning and Teaching Scotland to produce resource packs for teachers. However, when I did a quick search on the Education Scotland website, I could not find any relevant materials, though I might not have been using the right search terms.

A recent challenge to the Scottish Government about the extent to which Scottish children and young people learn about slavery received a minimal response indicating that students could learn about it at Levels 4 and 5, ie in their late teens. Given that many Scottish students have sadly dropped history by this stage, it is not much help. Yet a study of the slave trade must be intrinsic to the development of an awareness of the impact of colonialism and the creation of the society in which we live. You still read comments on the internet about the beneficial aspects of colonialism. The only way this ignorance can be combated is through a balanced approach to education which addresses all the issues, both positive and negative.

In London, primary schools learn about the slave trade, read positive books about Africa and the Caribbean and carry out units of work as part of the curriculum. Indeed, when you wander the streets there are many plaques and information boards recording the relevance of slavery for the area. Even in douce Telegraph Hill Park there are boards about slavery, produced by and for children. One reason for this difference between England and Scotland may be the relative lack of immigration to Scotland from the Caribbean and hence the lack of pressure from the community to do something about it. Most Scots probably want to forget the role of their ancestors. However, there is a good story to be told about abolition as well as the inevitable shame of the terrible practices which preceded it.

Another very puzzling aspect of the poor levels of interest about slave history in Scotland is the lack of any slavery museum. Liverpool has a designated and extensive museum. Bristol has set up slavery exhibitions in a slave trader's house. The Museum of London has a floor devoted to the slave trade from London ports. I love the National Museum of Scotland but, despite the number of artefacts from Scotland's Big Houses, there is no exhibition on the extent and impact of the slave trade. Try googling 'slavery'. I did. Zilch.

Again it is journalists who have been making the educational case for something to be done in Glasgow, Greenock and/or Edinburgh. Montrose Museum has done something, after all. In fact, journalists for all Scotland's quality newspapers - and even for the National - have written extensively on the subject of the slave trade as it was carried out across the country and the impact of plantation money. I found their articles fascinating and well informed. I have listed a number of them below. They base their articles on the extensive work carried out in Scottish universities, principally Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. However, do not underestimate the opposition which some of their findings have received. (See The myth of Scottish slavesSteven Mullen)

What about reparations and apologies for our devastation of Africa and the Caribbean? Many current writers have made a case for such reparations or, at least, for international aid to be regarded as reparation. I am not too sure about this. I am not too sure that we can ascribe responsibility and guilt to the current population of these islands for the monstrous actions of their great great great grandparents.

Slavery, sadly, has always existed. The English were enslaved by the Romans and the Vikings. The Russians still had serfs until relatively recently. The Turks had slaves. Arabs and Nigerians still have slaves. Migrants are currently being sold in slave markets in Libya. Indentured and indebted workers in India are, to all intent and purposes, slaves. Justifications for slavery have been made using references in the Bible, from Leviticus to St Paul. Major churches have been, and still are founded on these teachings, for examples, the Southern Baptist churches of the USA and the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. And, particularly horribly, African tribes took their defeated neighbours as slaves which their chiefs then sold to Europeans traders. Yes, I admit, internal slavery in Africa was not as highly developed a business as it was among the Europeans but the international trade would have been very difficult to pursue without their cooperation.

Sometimes when I have circulated an article about events far away in time or place, people have said to me, 'Well, what do you expect us to do about this?'

I don't. It is difficult for individuals to change things beyond their sphere of influence, except through some sort of international campaign. However, I don't think that is the point. The point is that we have a duty to KNOW. Above all, we have a duty to change what WE do HERE and NOW.

When we rented out our Edinburgh flat a few years ago, the agent discovered mattresses stacked in the bedrooms. He cancelled the tenancy and both he and I assumed that it was subletting - not allowed, but not surprising. In actual fact, with hindsight, I now know it was slavery. The young East Asian couple who rented it could not possibly had afforded it, though the agent had checked the financial backing as far as he could. They were housing forced workers.

A year ago, I had my nails done at a salon just up the road. I went twice but never returned. Why? Work was carried out by four or five young Chinese or Vietnamese women who sat in a row, eyes down and did not exchange a word. All talking was done by the man in charge. They were a miserable crew, quite unlike the staff at a normal hairdressing salon or beauty parlour. Trafficking and slavery. I now know that I should have reported what I observed. I know what I should do now, for the salon is still there. (Contact the Modern Slavery Helpline in Scotland)

There is slavery today in Edinburgh. There is slavery today in Glasgow. But, above all, there is slavery across Scotland. Some of the most shocking stories have come from places you would not connect with slavery: Livingston, Clackmannanshire and Appin in Argyll.

STV reported that the Scottish Government has identified 150 potential victims across all but five of the 32 council areas. The information below is taken from their report. And yet, more than half of Scots do not believe that human trafficking is a problem.

Victims include adults and children. They are sexually exploited or forced to work as servants or labourers. Almost 100 suspected victims have been intercepted at Glasgow Airport in the last nine months. There were 80 raids alone on premises during the early months of last year. The number of victims is rising. Of the 34 people rescued between April and June last year, at least six were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, including one child. The majority of trafficking victims in Scotland are from Vietnam, while others are from countries including Nigeria, China, Poland, and India.
Justice secretary Michael Matheson branded trafficking an "appalling abuse of human rights. This horrific crime affects the most vulnerable in society and has wide-reaching consequences for its victims. Generating awareness that the exploitation of adults and children is happening in Scotland today is key to bringing it to an end. This important campaign is part of a series of measures being implemented to eliminate this terrible crime. No one should ever be bought or sold."
Slavery may be an old old story. However, it is something we can do something about today.
  1. Joseph KnightJames Robertson, Fourth Estate, 2003
  2. Scotland's Empire: The Origins of the Global Diaspora, T M Devine, Penguin, 2003
  3. Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection, ed T M Devine, Edinburgh University Press, 2015: "For more than a century and a half the real story of Scotland's connections to transatlantic slavery has been lost to history and shrouded in myth. There was even denial that the Scots, unlike the English, had any significant involvement in slavery. Scotland saw itself as a pioneering abolitionist nation untainted by a slavery past. This book is the first detailed attempt to challenge these beliefs." 
  4. Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire, Andrea Stuart, Portobello Books, 2012. The story of the Ashby family, their slaves and sugar plantation, Plumgrove in Barbados, from the late 1630s to the present generation.
  5. The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War, Matthew Parker, Windmill Books 2011.
  6. Send Back the Money!: The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery, Iain Whyte, James Clark & Co, 2012
  7. The horrors of slavery and other writings, Robert Wedderburn, 1824, republished Edinburgh University Press 1992. It records Wedderburn's life, history, ideas, and his work as a leader in the movement to abolish slavery in the West Indies.
  8. Black Ivory: Slavery  in the British Empire, James Walvin, 2nd edition 1992/2001, Blackwells
  9. The horrors of slavery, John Kenrick, Cambridge 1817 (available as a free book from Kobo) Part 1: extracts from the speeches of Wilberforce and others. Part 2: extracts from 'authentic sources demonstrating that slavery is impolitic, antirepublican, unchristian and highly criminal and proposing measures for its complete abolition through the United States'.
  10. Scotland and the Slave Trade, Scottish Executive 2007
  11. Scotland and the Slave Trade, National Trust for Scotland, resource pack, 2011 (Refers to Greenbank House Glasgow, Culzean Castle and Brodick Castle Arran)
  12. Slavery and the British Country House, Madge Dresser 2013 (not read)
  13. The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789, Gutenberg e-book
  14. The Africa Trade from the Ports of Scotland 1706-66, Mark Duffill, Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slavery and Post-slavery Studies, Vol 25 2004 Issue 3, published online 5 August 2006
  15. The Axe laid to the Root: the Story of Robert Wedderburn, Martin Hoyles, Hansib, 2004
  16. Slavery and Sugar, Michael Morris, How Glasgow Flourished, Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Museums, 28 September 2016 (a series of podcasts and blogs originating in the exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in 2014)
  17. Joseph Knight: Scotland and the Black Atlantic, Michael Morris, International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue 4 Spring/Summer 2008
  18. The Scottish Enlightenment and the Politics of Abolition, PhD thesis, University of Aberdeen, Glen Doris, 2011 uploaded to 'Summary: This thesis examines the relationship between the Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and Abolitionist activism under the leadership of William Wilberforce and the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This work asserts that Scottish philosophers opposed legislative abolition, and that Henry Dundas's 'gradual amendment to Wilberforce's popularly supported 1792 Slave Trade Abolition bill was partly motivated by ideological fear of radical change rather than purely self interest. This amendment has been acknowledged by many as the reason the Slave Trade was allowed to continue despite public disapprobation, until 1807.
  19. After Somerset: the Scottish Experience, Cairns, JW, Journal of Legal History, 2012, vol 33, no. 3, pp. 291- 312, The Edinburgh Research Explorer, the University of Edinburgh
  20. Hume’s Revised Racism Revisited, Aaron Garrett, Hume Studies Volume XXVI, Number 1 (April, 2000) 171-178.
  21. Slave 'Merchant City, Runaway Slaves in Britain, Steven Mullan, 25 August 2016
  22. Slavery In The Coal-Mines Of ScotlandBy James Barrowman, Mining Engineer, Presented at Annual General Meeting of the Federated Institution of Mining Engineers, 14 September 1897 "Primarily designed to prevent desertions, the Act .... authorized a coal-owner to retain his colliers as long as he had work for them. From the fact that many collieries were then in constant operation, and that some have worked continuously to the present day, it is apparent that the colliers attached to works of a permanent character were bound for life, and from generation to generation."
  23. Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, 1845.
  24. The Negro's Complaint, William Cooper, 1788 (poem)
  25. The Slave's LamentRobert Burns, 1792 (poem)
  26. Robert Burns and SlaveryClark McGinn, 2015
  27. '"Negro-driver" or "Illustrious Exile": Revisiting Illustrious Exile: Journal of my Sojourn in the West Indies(2006)', Andrew O. Lindsay, Occasional Paper, International Journal of Scottish Literature
  28. Early Black European Lives: Joseph Knight (Scotland), The Woyingi Blog, 31 October 2011
  29. The history of Dahomy, an inland kingdom of Africa; compiled from authentic memoirs; with an introduction and notes, Archibald Dalzel, formerly Governor at Whydah, and now at Cape-Coast-Castle
  30. The Will of James Kerr 1785, Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library (bequests of plantations and slaves to beneficiaries in Scotland and Jamaica)
  31. Robert Allason & Greenbank, Stuart Nisbet & Tom Welsh, ISBN: 871215 07 2, 1992


  1. We Scots must face up to our slave trading past, Kevin McKenna, The Guardian, 22 November 2015
  2. The slave trade made Scotland rich. Now we must pay our blood-soaked debts, Stephen MacLaren, The Guardian, 13 January 2017
  3. The Guardian view on Britain's slavery inheritance: reflect and atone, Editorial, The Guardian, 30 September 2015
  4. Welcome to the Caribbean, Prince Harry. Will you dare to speak out about slavery?, Malinin Mohabir and Jermain Ostiana, The Guardian, 21 November 2016
  5. Back in the Day: No sugaring the pill of our country's slave trade role, Hamish MacPherson, The National, 7 March 2017
  6. Should Glasgow's slavery streets be renamed?, Alison Campsie, The scotsman, 20 February 2017
  7. How family tree search revealed slavery roots in 18th-century Ayrshire, Jonathan Sharp, The Scotsman, 6 May 2012
  8. Edinburgh's slavery map offers glimpse into city's dark past, Sam Shedden, The Scotsman, 20 August 2016
  9. Secret £2.5bn pay-off to Scotland’s slave owners: Effects of money can still be felt today, Connor Boyd, Sunday Post, 6 November 2017
  10. Slavery - a real piece of Highlands' heritage, David Alston, Inverness Courier25 September 2007,  updated 25 November 2011
  11. Scotland's slaving history revealed, Sandra Dick, Edinburgh Evening News, 22 October 2013
  12. Highland's 'forgotten' slave past, Steven Mackenzie, BBC News, 26 July 2007
  13. Scotland's slave trade and Montrose's key role, Alison Campsie, The Scotsman, 8 April 2016
  14. Glasgow's Dark Secret, The Scotsman, 20 March 2007
  15. Mystery slave found in portrait, BBC News, 19 March 2007
  16. Shame of city's slavery profits, The Scotsman, 28 December 2017 (?)
  17. Slave trade Scottish statue row erupts in wake of Charlottesville riots, Mark Aitken, The Daily Record, 27 August 2017
  18. The Scottish Slavery Map: Plotting out Scotland's past, Nathanael Williams, Common Space, 4 August 2016
  19. Scotland and Slavery, Annie Brown/Ian Thomas, 19 August 2015, Black History Month
  20. Scotland & Slavery, Annie Brown, 24 March 2007, updated 30 June 2012, Daily Record,
  21. Forget 'a man's a man for a' that' - Burns planned to make fortune from slave trade, The Herald, 19 January 2008
  22. Robert Burns and Slavery, Gerard Carruthers, Robert Burns Lives!
  23. Robert Burns and the fight to end slavery, Steven Brocklehurst, BBC news website, 25 January 2017
  24. Robert Burns and the Slave TradeBurns Museum blog, 22 May 2014
  25. Human trafficking victims found throughout Scotland, Chris Foote, STV News, 29 August 2017
  26. Almost 100 'trafficking victims' spotted at airport, STV, 24 August 2017 
  27. The myth of Scottish slavesSteven Mullen, 4 March 2016, The Sceptical Scot


  1. Slaves and Highlanders, David Alston,
  2. Mapping SlaveryNational Library of Scotland:
  3. The first Scots in Jamaica, Flag Up Scotland
  4. Robert Wedderburn, Spartacus Educational
  5. The Tobacco Lords, Wikipedia entry. Glasgow merchants who in the 18th century made enormous fortunes by trading in tobacco. They adopted the lifestyle of aristocrats, building great houses and splendid churches.
  6. Scotland and Glasgow in the records of slave compensation Reports for the Legacies of British Slave-ownership workshop, Glasgow, 4 September 2010. 
  7. Legacies of British Slave Ownership: John Wedderburn of Ballindean, University College London (UCL)
  8. Legacies of British Slave Ownership, James Wedderburn Colvile, Inveresk Lodge, UCL
  9. Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Richard Alexander Oswald, Auchincruive House (Oswald Hall), Ayrshire, MP for Ayrshire, UCL
  10. Legacies of British Slave Ownership, Hon. George Gun Munro of Grenada, Donor to Fortrose Academy
  11. John Knox House and the Legacies of British Slave Ownership, blog by R. J. Morris, Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History, University of Edinburgh, UCL
  12. Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Miss Colin Campbell Lloyd (nee Baillie), granddaughter of factor of forfeited Stewart Estates in Argyll, UCL
  13. Legacies of British Slave Ownership: John-Rennie-Strachan-Carnegie, Seaton House, Forfar in Angus, UC
  14. February 21 1729: Slavery comes to Perthshire, Perthshire Diary
  15. Scotland and the Slave Trade, resources at the National Library of Scotland
  16. Slavery and the Slave Trade, National Records of Scotland
  17. The status of slaves in Britain, Dr Alan Rice,
  18. Uncovering Mearns History, Mearns History Group (about Greenbank House and Robert Allason)
  19. Scotland Slavery Map website
  20. A North East Story: Scotland, Africa and Slavery in the Caribbean, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire Council, City of Aberdeen Council